In February 2008, Arsenal were five points clear at the top of the Premier League and seemingly on course to win their first title since 2004. However, their season hinged on one agonising moment. When Eduardo da Silva fractured his tibia and fibula during a match with Birmingham precisely seven years ago, more than just his leg was broken. Arsenal’s resolve was shattered too, and their subsequent collapse has haunted the club ever since.
It all happened so fast. Arsenal were just three minutes into the game at St. Andrews when Martin Taylor’s challenge left Eduardo in a crumpled heap. Television initially showed a replay of the incident before deciding it was too horrific for public broadcast. On the field, players from both sides had their heads in their hands in shock. What happened to Eduardo was every footballer’s nightmare.
Taylor, of course, was immediately dismissed. However, he has always insisted there was no malice in the challenge. Describe the incident to Sam Wallace of The Independent, he said:
All I remember was him going deep into midfield, turning and taking a touch. I felt he showed me enough of the ball to win it. In my head I definitely thought I could get that ball. There was never any intention to hurt him. It is not in my mentality to be premeditated or hurt someone. I'm not even the type to be physical with an opponent to 'show him that I am there'. It was just a fact that I thought the ball was there to win and – as other people have said – Eduardo was too quick for me.
Arsenal did not see it that way. In the game’s immediate aftermath, a clearly emotional Arsene Wenger compared Taylor’s tackle with more grave crimes. He told the same newspaper:
People will say he is not the type of guy who does that. But it is like a guy who kills only once in his life. There is still a dead person.
Wenger later retracted his comments, but it was clear he was furious at a challenge that was seen as part of a broader campaign to intimidate Arsenal by being physically assertive against them. Taylor’s tackle was irresponsible regardless of his intent.
On the pitch, the team were clearly unsettled by what they had witnessed. Refocusing on the game proved a nigh-impossible task, and it was no surprise when Arsenal fell behind to a James McFadden free-kick.
They did eventually manage to reassert themselves, taking the lead thanks to two goals from an 18-year-old Theo Walcott. However, the final kick in the teeth was still to come: In stoppage time, Gael Clichy conceded a penalty which McFadden converted to tie the scores.
Arsenal were destroyed. Having overcome their initial shock, they had been determined to secure three points for their stricken team-mate. Instead, they had let it slip at the death. At full-time, Captain William Gallas was caught by cameras engaging in a tearful tantrum, sitting down on the pitch for a full two minutes before being called away by Wenger.
The Birmingham match was the first of four consecutive draws that proved hugely costly to Arsenal’s hopes of claiming the Premier League title. After further stalemates against Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough, Arsenal surrendered another lead to lose at Chelsea.
After St. Andrews, the Gunners won just one of their next seven games. With each disappointment, the title slipped further away.
Ultimately, the consequences of what happened at St. Andrews extended well beyond the end of the 2007/08 season. Arsenal’s collapse set a precedent that has lingered around the club for the last seven years. Over the last seven years, Wenger’s side have shown a troubling tendency to choke at the finish line. The Eduardo incident appears to have been the genesis of that unfortunate psychological trait.
While Arsenal may rue the fallout of the Birmingham match, the individual in question also paid a heavy price.
Not only did the incident end Arsenal’s title charge, but it also called time on Eduardo’s prospects of establishing himself as an elite striker. After goals against Everton, West Ham and Manchester City, the Croatian international was beginning to gather some serious momentum at Arsenal.
He had the potential to be a poacher of the highest order. His finishing was second to none—he had a knack of taking the shot on early to deceive the goalkeeper, meeting high-pressure goalscoring opportunities with an eerie calm. His movement was also outstanding: Eduardo had a sixth sense for where the ball might drop in the penalty area. Arsenal had long searched for a "Fox in the Box," and it seemed they finally found the man to plunder the scruffy goals required to propel them back to the top of English football.
While Eduardo was grateful to return to football at all, he was never quite the same player. There were flashes of that familiar genius—an outrageous flick off the outside of his heel against Burnley stands out—but the injury had plainly taken its toll on the Croatian international. He was plagued by recurrent niggles and lacked the robustness and acceleration required to thrive in the Premier League. The greatest trauma may have been to his confidence. Eduardo has enjoyed a decent career, but never quite hit the heights many anticipated.
For both Eduardo and Arsenal, February 23 of 2008 was a day that left them wondering what might have been.
Where are they now?
MARTIN TAYLOR, now 35, is currently without a club having been released by Sheffield Wednesday in the summer of 2014.
EDUARDO DA SILVA, 31, competed for Croatia in the 2014 World Cup and now plays for Flamengo in his native Brazil.
ARSENAL currently sit in the Champions League qualification spots. They are still waiting to reclaim the Premier League title.